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In this study, the nature of electronic transport in quantum cascade lasers (QCLs) has been extensively investigated using an ultrafast time-resolved, degenerate, pump-probe optical technique. Our investigations enable a comprehensive understanding of the gain recovery dynamics in terms of a coupling of the electronic transport to the oscillating intracavity laser intensity. In QCLs that have a lasing transition diagonal in real space, studies of the near-threshold reveal that the transport of electrons changes bias region from phonon-limited relaxation (tens of picoseconds) below threshold to photon-driven transport via stimulated emission (a few picoseconds) above threshold. The gain recovery dynamics in the photon-driven regime is compared with conventional four-level lasers such as atomic, molecular, and semiconductor interband lasers. The depopulation dynamics out of the lower lasing state is explained using a tight-binding tunneling model and phonon-limited relaxation. For the superlattice relaxation, it is possible to explain the characteristic picosecond transport via dielectric relaxation; Monte Carlo simulations with a simple resistor model are developed, and the Esaki-Tsu model is applied. Subpicosecond dynamics due to carrier heating in the upper subband are isolated and appear to be at most about 10% of the gain compression compared with the contribution of stimulated emission. Finally, the polarization anisotropy in the active waveguide is experimentally shown to be negligible on our pump-probe data, supporting our interpretation of data in terms of gain recovery and transport.